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NATO Approves Membership Bids Of Sweden And Finland; Brittney Griner Pens Letter To Biden From Russian Prison; Biden Presents Highest Military Award To 4 Vietnam Veterans. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired July 05, 2022 - 11:30   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Formally approved the membership bids of Sweden and Finland to join the Alliance, and now the legislatures of the individual countries must agree. Let's bring it in CNN is Nina dos Santos. She's live in London with more. And, Nina, this is an unintended consequence of Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

NINA DOS SANTOS, CNN EUROPE EDITOR: Hi, Boris. Yes, that's absolutely right. It's also an enlargement that continues at pace, not just bringing in small countries, these are really big, important countries in the Baltic, north part of Europe that will radically reshape the security architecture in a way that could leave a part of Russia Kaliningrad, its Baltic outposts separated from the rest of Russia, as an isolated spot on the map from here on. It is the opposite of what Vladimir Putin would have wanted.

It also brings in two countries with big defense capabilities. They've each got tens of thousands of troops. Finland will have a border there's 830 miles long to police with Russia. And then Sweden, for its part has big fighter jet capabilities, a huge homegrown defense industry, and very sophisticated submarines to police the Baltic Sea. Jens Stoltenberg, the former Prime Minister of Norway, who is currently the Secretary-General of NATO, said that this was an important time not just for these two Nordic nations, but also for NATO's open-door policy too.


JENS STOLTENBERG, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: Naples's door remains open to European democracies who are ready to and willing to contribute to our shared security. This is a new day for Finland and Sweden and a good day for NATO.


DOS SANTOS: So now, these two countries are officially invitees. That means, Boris, that they can attend big NATO meetings. They can listen in, but they can't yet vote until they get ratified by all of those 30 Parliaments of NATO countries. We already saw in a positive step. Just earlier today, Denmark deciding to ratify their membership, so it could take between six and 12 months for them to be fully-fledged members of NATO from here, Boris. SANCHEZ: Nina de Santos live in London, thank you so much. Now to an emotional flee from WNBA star Brittney Griner. She penned a letter to President Biden from her Russian jail cell saying that she is terrified she may be held captive forever. Let's go to the State Department now and CNN's Kylie Atwood. Kylie, walk us through what Griner said in her letter to President Biden.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, by all accounts, it was a desperate and fearful plea to President Biden. She made a personal plea to him saying that she hasn't voted in the past but she did vote in 2020 for him. And I want to read you a line from this letter where she says to President Biden.

I realize you're dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and the other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home. I miss my wife. I miss my family. I miss my teammates. It kills me to know they're suffering so much right now. I'm grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.

Now, she also said to President Biden, I believe in you. And she talked about just how challenging it has been to set a celebration this July 4 because it hurts her to think about how she has in the past celebrated American and America freedoms and the American veterans but, of course, now she is spending July 4, just yesterday, in a Russian prison. Now, we also heard in recent days from her wife, Cherelle Griner.

She expressed some frustration saying that U.S. officials' rhetoric in this situation isn't matching what they're actually doing to bring her wife home. And the National Security Council spokesperson at the White House responded to this letter from Griner yesterday saying that President Biden has been very clear about the need to bring all Americans including Griner home saying they are working aggressively with all means to do so.

But it was interesting yesterday to hear some comments from the coach of the Phoenix Mercury, that is the coach of the basketball team that Brittney Griner was playing on here in the United States, and she said if this was LeBron, he would be home. She said this is not just about an American wrongfully detained abroad, but this is about the fact that she is a woman. This is about a statement about the fact that she is a gay woman, a black woman, and that is one of the reasons why this is a little bit more hurtful in her words, Boris.

SANCHEZ: An incredibly difficult time for the WNBA star. We'll see what the U.S. government does to bring her home and we know you'll stay on top of the story for us. Kylie Atwood from the State Department, thank you so much.

Coming up, we are expecting an update from officials in that deadly mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. An eyewitness to the shooting is joining CNN after a quick break. Stay with us.


[11:35:41] (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, welcome to the White House.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR (voiceover): All right, live pictures from the White House, President Biden awarding the Medal of Honor to four Army veterans, three of whom are still alive for their service in the Vietnam War. Let's listen.

BIDEN: And so many people were honored today. Mr. Secretary, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and senior military officers thank you all for being here. Yesterday, mark the 246th anniversary of this nation's independence. 246 years of struggle and sacrifice to uphold the principles, so dear to the character of our nation, liberty, democracy, and God-given rights of every individual. It's a journey that has never finished and it never will be fully finished.

It's the work that requires us to look ahead to the future, the future we want to build, and look carefully at our past to understand fully where we come from. For each of those 246 years, American patriots have answered our nation's call to military service. They stood in the way of danger, and risked everything, literally everything, to defend our nation and our values. However, not every service member has received the full recognition they deserve.

Today, we're setting the record straight. We're upgrading the awards of four soldiers who perform acts of incredible heroism during the Vietnam conflict, to respect the conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity how -- and interoperability to service. I mean, it's just astounding when you hear what each of them have done. They went far above and beyond the call of duty. It's a phrase always used but it's just -- it takes on life when you see these men. To the late Staff Sergeant Edward M. Kaneshiro, Specialist 5 Dwight W. Birdwell, Specialist 5 Dennis M. Fuji, and to Major John Duffy, I'm proud to finally award our highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor, to each of you one plus timorously.

It has been a long journey to this day for those heroes and their families, and more than 50 years have passed, 50 years, since the jungles of Vietnam where, as young men, these soldiers first prove their medals. But time has not diminished their astonishing bravery, their selflessness and putting the lives of others ahead of their own, and the gratitude that we as a nation owe them.

December 1, 1966, Staff Sergeant Kaneshiro was an infantry squad leader. His platoon was navigating toward what seemed to be a peaceful village. It was an ambush. A vastly superior force of North Vietnamese troops was concealed within the village, protected by fortified bunkers, underground tunnels, and a big trench that ran through the entire village. As Staff Sergeant, Kaneshiro led his squad to the east of the village, two other squads headed straight in, where the enemy opened fire on them with machine guns and small arms fire, killing the platoon leader the point man, and pinning down two squads.

Hearing the battle unfold, Staff Sergeant Kaneshiro moved his squad toward the sound of the firing, where he quickly jumped into action. The machine-gun fire suppressing his platoon mates was coming from a big trench. It had to be stopped. He ordered his man to take cover, and then he advanced the loan toward the enemy position.

Armed with six grenades and his M-16, laying flat on the ground, Staff Sergeant Kaneshiro hurled his first grenade and sailed directly through the aperture of the bunker, taking out the machine gunner in the first row. He then jumped into the trench alone, moved along a trench for 35 meters -- 35 meters, clearing the enemy as he went -- as he as -- his head would emerge above the trench as he yelled grenade, then his platoon would lose sight of him and hear it exploded.


BIDEN: By the time he was done, the two other squads were able to stand up, collect their dead and injured and recognize -- and reorganize the fight, and successfully withdraw from the village. According to the eyewitnesses' account of the battle from Sergeant -- Staff Sergeant Hasker -- Haskett, Kaneshiro's bravery and single- handedly clearing the trench a verdict would might have been "a disaster" for the whole platoon.

Born and raised in Hawaii, the son of Japanese immigrants, a proud husband, and father of four, Staff Sergeant Kaneshiro continued to service with his unit in Vietnam until he was killed in action by hostile gunfire on March 6, 1967. Today, his memory lives on, on the lives he saved, in the legend of his fearlessness, and in the hearts of the family, he left behind.

John, Naomi, Tom, thank you for being here today, and thank you too for your sister Doris as well, who could not be with us. And John, thank you for your service -- your military service. Your family sacrificed so much for our country. I know that no award can ever make up for the loss of your father, for not having him there as you grew up. But I hope today if you take some pride and comfort in knowing his valor, he's finally receiving the full recognition he has always deserved.

January 31, 1968. It was an opening assault that would come to be known as the Tet Offensive, a particularly bloody period of the Vietnam War. North Vietnam forces -- North Vietnamese forces launched an attack on a strategically located airbase in Saigon -- New Saigon. The first American unit called to respond was that of Specialist 5 Dwight Birdwell. Unknown to approximately 100 men and sea troops, they were moving to be taken on a full regimen of Viet Cong likely to be more than 1000 strong. They arrived, the troops engaged the Viet Cong forces, Specialist Birdwell's unit took the main brunt of the attack with many tanks and vehicles disabled.

When his tank commander was hit and gravely wounded, Specialist Birdwell got him to a place of safety and then took command. He knew his vehicle was on the first line of defense so Birdwell stood in his commander's hat two times half exposed, a time standing entirely out of the tank fully exposed, laying down suppressive fire on the enemy. He used the tank's cannon, he used the tank's machine gun, he used his personal rifle, he sustained fire drove back the attackers, and created a place of relative safety for the injured man behind the tank to take cover. He provided battlefield updates to his commanders until the enemy shot the communication system right off of his helmet.

When he ran out of ammunition, he ran to retrieve an M 60 machine gun and ammo off the helicopter that had been downed in a flight to keep firing on the enemy. And even when that M 60 was hit by enemy fire, causing it to explode and send shrapnel onto Birdwell's face, chest, arms, and hands, he remained on the battlefield. When he was ordered to load onto the medevac helicopter, he complied. This I find amazing, only to crawl right back off the other side and to keep on fighting. That's what you call taking orders and causing trouble. God loves you.

Only after reinforcements arrive and only after he helped treat the evacuation, his fellow wounded, Specialist Birdwell agreed to evacuate himself. At the time, Birdwell received the Silver Star for his outstanding heroism on the battlefield. It took decades for his commanding officer, then-General Glenn Otis to realize Birdwell had not received the full honor he had earned.

But in retirement, General Otis made sure to correct the record and fully document Birdwell's actions to make this day possible. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Birdwell credited Cherokee veterans who came before him and encouraged him to serve when he called. And I might note, Native American communities, a larger percentage serving the United States Armed Forces at a higher percentage rate than any other cohort in America -- than any other cohort in America.

After leaving the armor, Birdwell continues to build a legacy of service in his community in Oklahoma. He started his own law firm, served for 12 years on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, and he passed that legacy of service down to his daughter, Stephanie Birdwell who's with him today and who serves as the Director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the Department of Veterans Affairs.


BIDEN: Specialist 5 Birdwell, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And to your wife, Virginia, who I know wishes she could be here with you today, give her our love as well. I'm grateful for all you've given our country and that at long last -- at long last. Your story is being honored as it should have been always.

February 18, 1971. Specialist 5 Dennis Fuji -- excuse me, Fuji, who was serving as a second tour in Vietnam as a crew chief and helicopter ambulance, conducting a rescue operation in Laos. They were there to evacuate wounded allied Vietnamese military personnel. But as their chopper attempted to land, it became the target sustaining heavy damage that caused them to crash land in the middle of the conflict. When a second American helicopter managed the land nearby minutes later, he was able to evacuate all the downed crewmen except Specialist Fuji.

Rather than the rest of the lives of his crewmates, Specialist Fuji waved off the helicopter, told them to depart, remaining behind as the only American on the battlefield. Several attempts were made to rescue him before Specialist Fuji could find a radio and call off further attempts -- call off further attempts. It was too dangerous, he said. He stayed behind ignoring his own wounds and helping 10 wounded Vietnamese allies on the field.

The next night, the enemy forces renewed their assault on the Allied lines with heavy artillery. For more than 17 consecutive hours, Specialist Fuji called in American gunships to propel the attack. He repeatedly exposed himself to hospital fire in order to better observe enemy positions and direct airstrikes against them. On the radio, as fellow Americans knew him as Papa Whiskey, a clear-eyed level-headed soldier, directing airstrikes so precisely, that they were able to drive back the forces that had come within 15 to 20 meters of a friendly camp.

When an American helicopter was finally able to retrieve him, wounded and severely fatigued, two days after his air -- his air ambulance had crashed, in may -- he made it only about four kilometers before a crash landing. Specialist Fuji had to wait two more days for another South Vietnamese base before he was able to leave the area and receive the medical assistance for his wounds. Speaking to the press shortly after his experience, Specialist Fuji downplayed his own contributions and honoring the skills of the Allied Vietnamese troops he fought with, simply saying "I like my job, I like to help other people who need help out there." It's amazing.

Today, Specialist 5 Fuji, we remember and we celebrate just how many people you helped. I want to thank you and your wife, Ray, who couldn't be here with you today. And your brother Edwin, for all your family has done for this nation. We will forever honor your commitment to your crew, your allies, and to your country.

April 14, 1972, the Battle of fire support base Charlie. Lone American on the base serving as a senior adviser to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was Major John Duffy. They called him Dusty Cyanide. That was his call name. Those days leading up to April 14, the battalion command post had been destroyed. Major Duffy had already been twice wounded, refusing evacuation. Efforts to resupply the base had failed, and FSB Charlie was surrounded by the battalion-size element. For hours, American gunships guided by Dusty Cyanide took airstrikes on enemy positions.

Major Duffy repeatedly exposed himself to danger in order to direct the gunships fire and keep the battalion from being overrun. He even called in one strike extreme danger close to his own position in order to drive back in advance and attack. And when he has wounded again, he again refused evacuation. He worked side by side to organize the defense of the base with the Vietnamese commander, Major Matt Miley, who was here today. Major, where are you? Major, thank you for being here, and thank you for your service. It's an honor to have you here.

When they finally had to bend on the base, Major Duffy volunteered to lead the risk squad and cover their retreat. And when they're withdrawing soldiers were ambushed early on April 15, and many of the injured troops scattered, Major Duffy remained with those who were wounded, rallying them to make it to an established evacuation though despite being constantly pursued by the Viet Cong.


BIDEN: Upon reaching the exfiltration site, Major Duffy again made sure he was the last to board the helicopter. And then finally when the airship was ready to depart, one of his Vietnam allies -- Vietnamese allies was shot in the foot, causing him to fall backward out of the helicopter. Then Major Duffy caught him and dragged him back in on board with him. Saving one more life along the way.

Major Duffy served in the Army until 1977, completing three tours in Vietnam, numerous Special Forces assignments, and 20 years of faithful service to our country. After which he went on to a successful career as an author, and was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He is the definition of a warrior poet. And during devotion for those who served with and those who serve our nation still. Thank you, Major Duffy, for all that you've inspired and others.

And as Commander in Chief, I know this is not only the -- for those who wear the uniform of our Nation and served, it's your families as well. So, Mary, thank you for all that you sacrificed over the years as well. To Marcus and Judd, I want to emphasize what you already know. Your grandpa's a hero, flat out unadulterated hero.

Were able to take these actions a day to upgrade the awards and properly honor the duty and devotion of those soldiers. Thanks, thanks to the individual dedication of those who served with them. And because of the congressionally ordered review of the heroic action of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, we awarded distinguish service crosses during the Korean and Vietnam wars to make sure we properly honor the contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and their service they've made over the years.

We did a similar review of World War Two era awards, resulting in 22 Medal of Honors being awarded to Asian Americans Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islander service members who had previously been under- recognized including a very close friend of mine, one of my closest friends, and benefactors in the United States Senate, Daniel Inouye, the United States Senator.

So I want to also thank the members of Congress who helped make this possible to ensure that the United States lives up to our promises. That, for those who give their best for our country, will always, always give our best to you. I also want to take a moment to recognize three other Medal of Honor recipients, awarded for their heroic actions in Vietnam are with us today. Walter Martin. Martin, where are you? There you are, stand. Walter, thank you. James McCloughan and Brian Thacker, thank you for being here to help us recognize these newest honorees.

And I want to also note that last week, we lost a giant in this community. Hershel Woody Williams passed away at the age of 98, the last Medal of Honor recipient of World War Two. Honored by President Harry Truman for his valor during the Battle of Iwo Jima, Woody Williams will soon lie in honor in the United States Capitol. And his passing is a reminder of what so many Americans of our greatest generation sacrificed to preserve liberty, democracy, and for our nation and for the world.

Now, it's my great honor to ask for the citations to be read as we award the Medal of Honors to the late Staff Sergeant Edward Kaneshiro, Specialist 5 Dwight D. Birdwell, Specialist 5 Dennis M. Fuji -- excuse me, Fuji, Major -- and Major John J. Duffy. Thank you all and may God protect our troops. Thank you. Come on the stand, come on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kaneshiro accepting on behalf of his father, Staff Sergeant Edward Kaneshiro. Attention orders, the President of the United States --


BERMAN: All right, you are watching right now the end of this Medal of Honor ceremony, President Biden awarding the Medal of Honor to four Army soldiers, three of whom are still alive, Vietnam veterans for their heroic service during that conflict.


BERMAN: It comes on July 5, just one day after the fourth of July, the celebration of this nation's independence and we thank those four servicemen for the work that they've done for this country. Obviously, here in Highland Park, the celebration of the Fourth of July took a tragic turn, the shootings -- the mass shootings in the parade that took place right on the route where I'm standing behind me. Here to enjoy the parade was a friend of ours who is usually in Washington, might very well, have been you at the White House for the event today. Lynn Sweet, the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Lynn joins us now. So, Lynn, you are here, you're in town for the parade.

LYNN SWEET, WITNESS TO PARADE SHOOTING: I was standing steps behind you, which is where the parade started. And if people wonder why am I here, I came as a civilian. I have family that lives just a few blocks from where we're standing right now. And I love the Highland Park parade. I've been coming here for years. Of course, the parade went on a hiatus because of COVID, so this was supposed to be and as we know, tragically not kind of a joyous restart of a wonderful suburban tradition up here in this North Shore suburb.

BERMAN: You say you were here as a civilian, but people who know you and know you are never a civilian, you are always a reporter. So you heard the shots, then what?

SWEET: I didn't quite hear because where we're standing and I was a little bit over your shoulder where the parade was starting, the shots were not heard but you learned to this, two ways. You either heard it, or you did what I did, I saw a sea of people looking terrified, running down the street behind you. So I said to one person -- you know I immediately started making my way up to the parade route, and I said what happened, is somebody said shots were fired. And they said this is they took shelter in an underground parking lot below you.

And soon as I made my way down the street, down this avenue, Central Avenue in downtown Highland Park, the horror of what happened, well, I came upon it right away. John, there were bodies on the ground. There were people wounded. And because so many first responders were around here just to be here for it's supposed to be a celebration of a parade, there are people on the spot right away to help people.

But I saw things that were just terrific, pools of blood. You also had a sense, and there's a little bit left on the street now and I'm sure your cameras captured it. If you want to know how fast people left, here are the moments frozen in time people just got up off their chairs, they left their baby carriages, and water bottles, and I see some food that people had. They just left it and ran because they knew -- people got it pretty quickly, that this was an active shooter situation.

BERMAN: They knew and you knew when you were on the scene immediately reporting back to the rest of the country so we all knew what was happening here. Lynn, we thank you for being with us. I know now you're anxious to go see a news conference that's about to start right now from local law enforcement. So we're now going to hand it over to John King for "INSIDE POLITICS" because we're going to take that news conference to you live the minute it happens. It's starting very quickly. CNN's special live coverage of the events here, the aftermath of this mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois continues right after this.